On the morning of September 15, 1916, during the battle of the Somme, one of the world’s deadliest engagements, German soldiers were shocked to find themselves confronting the first ever deployed combat tanks.
Military historians have debated the direct tactical impact of Britain’s cumbersome Mark 1 tank on the World War I battle, which ended inconclusively after a million men had lost their lives or been left wounded. But its psychological effect on German soldiers, who watched the tanks crush barbed wire and navigate trenches, was “immense,” causing “bewilderment, terror and concern in equal measure,” according to military historian David Willey.
Britain has played a storied role in the development of the battle tank. Its post-world War II tanks, the Centurion, Chieftain and Challenger, are considered iconic and were eagerly bought by other armies, including Israel’s, which used the Centurion with devastating effect in 1967 and 1973.
But now with defense cuts looming, British ministers and defense chiefs are debating whether the country should become the first major European military power to do without tanks altogether.
The proposal is provoking outrage in some quarters — as well as furious exchanges in the letter pages of Britain’s broadsheet newspapers, The Times and Daily Telegraph.
Critics of the proposal to terminate Britain’s entire tank fleet say the move would amount to a further significant downgrading of Britain’s armed forces, which have suffered repeated and drastic cuts in funding for decades. In the past decade Britain has cut its number of soldiers from 100,000 to just over 70,000. Eliminating tanks, they say, would place in peril Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States.
But British officials say tanks are a bygone weapon and there’s no point being stuck in the past. Military investment needs to be shifted to cyber-warfare and other cutting-edge technology, they add.
Britain is already in discussions with NATO partners about plans to give up heavy armor and for more detailed strategies to better coordinate the various military capabilities of member states. This is the only way forward, say officials, to cope with financial pressures, which will be worsened by the economic impact of the novel coronavirus.
Their opponents say the proposal is just cost cutting masquerading as strategy.
Relinquishing tanks “would place us in military terms behind the likes of Germany, Poland, France and Hungary,” laments Paul Cornish, a former tank commander, whose father was a member of the test crew trying out the Chieftain tank when it was first introduced in the 1960s.
“The tank is one of the most important inventions in the history of warfare. It might be more than 100 years old, but it has been vital in modern conflicts, particularly in Iraq from 2003 onwards,” Cornish, who’s now an academic and an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense research group in London, wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
“I can imagine a future in which the tank will be an artifact for discussion — a museum piece — but I can honestly say, hand on heart, that moment has not arrived. I can understand that to some observers the tank might appear outmoded, and I readily acknowledge that as a former tank soldier I am biased. But this is by no means the post tank era,” he added.
The British army has seen its tank fleet reduced dramatically in recent years. It can currently field 227 Challenger 2 tanks. But they are now dated and need to be upgraded. Thirty years ago the British army had 684 tanks.
Meanwhile, Russia has a tank fleet of 2,830 and a further 10,000 older tanks stored in reserve, according to the Military Balance 2020, an assessment of the world’s armed forces by Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
And Russia has been actively modernizing its fleet, upgrading aging tanks and fielding its advanced T-14 Armata tank.
However, Russia also is facing funding problems when it comes to tanks. It has had to reduce its plans to have 2,300 T-14s by 2025. Each T-14 costs more than $4 million to build and foreign sales will be needed to offset costs. So far, only 20 T-14s have entered service — one was reportedly destroyed in Syria this year, surprisingly blown apart by a low-tech U.S.-manufactured TOW-2B anti-tank rocket.
British military historian Max Hastings, a former newspaper editor, acknowledges that the tank has played a prominent role in battlefield triumphs in the past, but says it doesn’t mean it will be an essential weapon of war in a cyber-dominated future. “Nobody should be sentimental about weapons of war, whether longbows, pikes, Brown Bess muskets — or tanks,” he argues.
Hastings notes tanks are “immensely expensive, and ever-more vulnerable to air power including drones and attack helicopters, and to cheap missiles,” such as the one that demolished the T-14 in Syria.
The modernizing argument is not assuaging some former defense chiefs and conservative lawmakers, who are also reacting with horror at the idea of abandoning tanks. Compromise proposals have been floated, including buying Germany’s Leopard 2 tank instead of upgrading Britain’s dated Challengers, a cheaper option. There has also been talk of mothballing the Challengers, keeping them in storage ready to be brought out in a crisis.
That idea has earned a sharp rebuke from Gen. Richard Dannatt, a former chief of the General Staff. “The impression that you can take equipment out of mothballs, doesn’t work like that. The capability involves personnel, training and interaction with attack aviation, artillery, armored infantry vehicles, air support. These all come together and require a lot of training and experience,” he said.